English as a Second Language for Adults Research Paper Starter

English as a Second Language for Adults

(Research Starters)

Adult English language learners are different from typical classroom learners. Their motivation to learn the language is strong but they often have much less free time to learn than elementary or secondary school students. Teachers must know individual student's goals and help students work toward these while attempting to keep student motivation high. This is not always easy as adult students are not always able to attend class, must oftentimes leave early, and may not be able complete every assignment. The varied ability levels of students in a typical English language classroom can further complicate teaching this segment of learners.

Keywords Competency-Based Education; English Language Learner; Functional Language; Grammar; Journal Writing; Language; Non-Literate Adults; Pronunciation; Roman Alphabet; Semi-Literate Adults; Vocational Education


Every day in classrooms, church basements, and conference rooms throughout the country, adults from a variety of backgrounds and countries are learning how to speak and understand English. Some of these students already speak and understand some of the language, others may be able to read it, and still others may come from cultures that do not use the Roman alphabet and must therefore learn the unique sound and symbol correspondence that is the cornerstone of the English language. Adult learners' goals are many and varied; most students know that English language learning isn't just acquiring the skills to speak the language. Learning the language means also understanding the values and sensibilities of American culture (Johnston, 2003).

This task isn't easy for the student or the teacher. Regardless of their reasons for taking an ESL class, adult students can quickly feel frustrated. In many cases, they do not learn language that will be immediately useful in their daily lives, and they may be bored by learning verb tenses or where to correctly insert an adjective. Adult learners require the efficient acquisition of useful and pertinent language, and some types of curriculum (e.g., competency-based ESL classes) are designed to do this. The flexibility of the organization of some of these classes make it possible for teachers to use their own best practices and techniques as well as any materials they have acquired that may make it for the students to assimilate into their new country and culture (Behrens, 1983).

The Adult Learner

Adult English language learners have diverse backgrounds. Immigrating to the United States from almost every country in the world, these students are usually highly motivated to assimilate quickly into the American culture, find a job, and, if they have children, ensure they are enrolled in a school or other appropriate programs and can easily transition into their new environment. However, even with these common goals, there is no typical adult ESL student (Graham & Walsh, 1996).

Some adult learners may come to the United States with little from their native countries. Others may be highly educated in their countries of origin and may even hold professional degrees, certifications, or licenses. These professional adults are often unable to find the same type of employment they previously held because their professional, higher-level degrees cannot be used in the United States and they must take additional certification tests. Because they cannot speak English, it is difficult for these people the necessary tests or even to attain any kind of employment in the United States. It is essential for these adults to enroll in an English class and learn to read, write, and speak English as soon as they are able (Jolly & Jolly, 1974).

Adult students usually attend English language classes for a few basic reasons. Some adults need to learn the language to get a job. Others may already have jobs but to acquire greater fluency in order keep their positions or to be promoted. Some need English instruction in order to pass the GED test or to take college classes. Still others may be retired or alone and use the class as a way to interact with other non-natives (Graham & Walsh, 1996).

In most cases, the students are in class because they want to be, not because they have to be (although some students may have been required to attend English classes by their employer). Some older students, often those who are retired and looking for social interaction, may think they cannot learn or are too old to learn, but generally they are excited at the prospect (Graham & Walsh, 1996). Despite their reasons for enrolling in the class and their preconceived ideas, most students come to class motivated to do well. The teacher's challenge is to maintain that motivation for the duration of the course (Graham & Marsh, 1996).

The Adult ESL Teacher

The ESL teacher is the students' crucial link to learning the language. Most students don't realize that many adult ESL teachers don't hold a certification to teach and are creating their own strategies as they work with methods of teaching English (Johnston, 2003). It's an uphill battle—some teachers are hired and assigned a classroom without any training prior to their first class (Graham & Walsh, 1996).


Instructors often don't get much help from their peers. Adult English language teachers, even those working for a college or university, are typically not a part of the mainstream college teaching faculty. Many language classes are held in community centers, the unused rooms and basements of churches, and public library conference rooms. Often the adult ESL class is run independently of other meetings or classes run by the hosting organization, and the teacher works alone except for occasional staff meetings or social functions. Staff development meetings usually do not cover teaching strategies but instead focus on the types of paperwork necessary to comply with government funding regulations (Orem, 2001). Because of the unique situations inherent in this type of teaching job, and students' varied abilities, goals, availability, motivation, and prior knowledge of the language, teaching the adult English as a Second Language (ESL) learner is an exceptional opportunity.

Student Expectations

Adult language students often come to class with fixed ideas about the education process, which they bring from their native countries. Teachers in some cultures are held in the highest esteem and greatly respected, much more so than in the United States. Some ESL teachers may not be prepared for this type of attention or admiration. Students from other cultures may expect a more personal relationship with their teacher than is typical of regular teacher/student relationships in the United States. Adult ESL teachers need to be aware of these types of cultural differences before class even begins and be prepared to explain to students the teachers' role as well as how the classroom will be run (Graham & Walsh, 1996).


An important first step for the ESL teacher is to assess students and place them in appropriate class levels. This process usually consists of an oral or written test, or both, and should occur prior to the beginning of the first class. Students who are in a class that is too easy or too difficult for them will likely lose interest and stop attending (Graham & Walsh, 1996).

After students have been placed in appropriate beginning, intermediate, or advanced English language classes, the teacher will often ask them what they need from the class to improve their lives in the United States. This is an efficient way for the teacher to plan a course that is relevant, rigorous, and appropriate for the language needs of the particular class group. Although not all students will be able to articulate their reasons for taking the course, it is still possible for the teacher to get a good idea of most students' aims. Each student's goals should be assessed informally as the instructor is able and as communication is eased. By knowing students' goals, the instructor is able to help each student feel that progress is being made, and students will be more likely to participate in the class and maintain high levels of interest and motivation (Graham & Walsh, 1996).

In general, adult learners will need and want to know the skills necessary for them to participate fully in daily life, their jobs, further education opportunities, and the lives of the school-aged children (Morgan, 1998).Curriculum can be planned around these goals.


Since most adult language learners are not able to spend considerable time in a classroom, the time they do...

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